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This is Sara Rimer’s NY Times article:
OBERLIN, OHIO -Lucas Brown, a junior at Oberlin College here, was still wet from his shower the other morning as he entered his score on the neon green message board next to the bathroom sink: Three minutes, according to the plastic hourglass timer inside the shower. Two minutes faster than the morning before. One minute faster than two of his housemates.
Mr. Brown, a 21-year-old economics major, recalled the marathon runner who lived in the house last semester, saying: “He came out of the shower one morning and yelled out: ‘Two minutes 18 seconds. Beat that, Lucas!’ ”
Another of Mr. Brown’s seven housemates, Becky Bob-Waksberg, racked up the morning’s longest shower: Eight minutes. The house cuts Ms. Bob-Waksberg slack, Mr. Brown said, because of her thick, curly hair, which takes longer to shampoo.
So it goes at Oberlin’s new sustainability house — SEED, for Student Experiment in Ecological Design — a microcosm of a growing sustainability movement on campuses nationwide, from small liberal arts colleges like Oberlin and Middlebury, in Vermont, to Lansing Community College in Michigan, to Morehouse in Atlanta, to public universities like the University of New Hampshire.
While previous generations focused on recycling and cleaning up rivers, these students want to combat global warming by figuring out ways to reduce carbon emissions in their own lives, starting with their own colleges. They also view the environment as broadly connected with social and economic issues, and their concerns include the displacement of low-income families after Hurricane Katrina and the creation of “green collar” jobs in places like the South Bronx.
The mission is serious and yet, like life at the Oberlin house, it blends idealism, hands-on practicality, laid-back community and fun.
“It’s not about telling people, ‘You have to do this, you have to do that,’ ” Mr. Brown said. “It’s about fitting sustainability into our own lives.” And hoping, he added, “that a friend will come over, recognize that it’s fun, start doing it, and then a friend of theirs will start doing it.”
With their professors as collaborators, and with their own technological and political savvy, students are persuading administrators to switch to fossil-free fuel on campus — Middlebury is building an $11 million wood-chip-powered plant, part of its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2016 — serve locally grown food in dining halls and make hybrid cars available for shared transportation when, say, the distance is too far to bike and there is no bus. Students are planting organic gardens and competing in dorm energy-use Olympics. At Oberlin last year, some students in the winning dorm did not shower for two weeks, officials said.
“This is a generation that is watching the world come undone,” said David Orr, a professor of environmental studies at Oberlin. Projects like the Oberlin house, he said, are “helping them understand how to stitch the world together again.”
Dr. Orr’s course in ecological design became the incubator for the house when Mr. Brown and the two other founders of SEED, Kathleen Keating and Amanda Medress, enrolled in it last spring. They had done research on sustainability houses at Middlebury, Brown and Tufts, and had persuaded the college to turn over an aging, drafty two-story house. But before they could move in, they needed to make the house energy efficient.
The class studied water and energy use, insulation, heating and cooling, and financing. Nathan Engstrom, Oberlin’s sustainability coordinator — an essential position on many campuses these days — gave advice. John Petersen, the college’s environmental studies director, checked out the house’s wiring.
The college spent $40,000 to renovate the house over the summer, bringing it up to safety code. Mr. Brown used the carpentry skills he had learned from his father to pitch in on weatherizing.
The students moved in last September. “We sat down and had a meeting — ‘O.K., what next?’ ” Mr. Brown recalled. “We didn’t know what it meant to have a sustainable house.”
That first night, amid confusion about who was home and who was out, they left the lights on. “We said, ‘Oh, no, we just had a terrible first day,’ ” Mr. Brown said. “ ‘We’re leaving lights on everywhere.’ ”
All year they studied together in the living room at night so they would not have to turn on lights in the other rooms. They mastered worm composting, lowered the thermostat — keeping it at 60 degrees for most of the winter and piling on blankets — and unplugged appliances. There is no television, but no one seems to consider that a hardship.
“You have the rest of your life to watch TV,” Ms. Keating said.
The unplugging of the refrigerator was not so easy. The house is divided in two, and each half has a kitchen. With everyone eating meals at a nearby student-run co-op, a decision was made to save energy by disconnecting the refrigerator and appliances in one kitchen. But which one?
“The fridge was kind of controversial,” Ms. Bob-Waksberg said. “We kind of had a little feud going on for a while. We talked it out.”
Now that the weather is warm, the residents of the house like to barbecue. Oberlin’s president, Marvin Krislov, dropped by with his young daughter a few weeks ago for burgers and grilled corn. Offering the ritual tour, the students demonstrated how they caught their shower and sink water in buckets and reused it to flush their low-flow toilet, a budget model improvised with a couple of salvaged bricks in the tank.
“He was using us to chastise his daughter for leaving lights on and the water running,” Mr. Brown said.
The bathroom is the showstopper on the tour. Besides the hourglass timer — Mr. Brown pointed out that it was called a shower coach and cost $3 online — the shower’s energy-saving motivational accessories include a picture of former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina plastered to the ceiling.
That was Ms. Bob-Waksberg’s idea. No one wants to linger in the shower with someone staring down from the ceiling, she said.
“You could also look at it another way,” she said, “that John Edwards is encouraging me to take a shorter shower.”
Why Mr. Edwards? “He had the strongest global warming policies of any of the candidates,” Mr. Brown said.
Ms. Bob-Waksberg, a religion studies major from California, was one of 25 students who applied to live in the house. With the house’s three founders looking for nonenvironmental studies types for diversity, Ms. Bob-Waksberg’s major, along with her confession that her environmental work had amounted to “various weed-pulling, clean-up-the-bay projects” back in high school, made her a shoo-in.
“We kind of roped Becky into sustainability,” Mr. Brown said.
Ms. Bob-Waksberg, along with Mr. Brown and carloads of other students, went to New Orleans to help after Hurricane Katrina. She will return to the city this summer to teach.
By next fall, the house’s 24-hour energy-use monitoring system will be fully up and running. Every turn of the faucet, every switch of a light, will be recorded, room by room.
The house, with its mismatched secondhand furniture, comic book posters and bicycles parked in the living room, is a popular meeting place for environmentally conscious student groups. Ms. Bob-Waksberg’s quirky, hand-printed signs (on recycled cardboard) admonish visitors to turn off lights and unplug appliances. The sign next to Mr. Brown’s electric keyboard in the living room says: “The music was beautiful. Now go do your homework and don’t forget to unplug me.”
“My keyboard,” Mr. Brown said, “is one of my indulgences.”
He confessed to another one. Sometimes, he said, “on a Friday after a long week of finals, I have to have a bath and a beer.”
What about the shower timer? He laughed, sheepishly.
“I hide it on the floor,” he said.
source: This is Sara Rimer’s NY Times article on 5/26/08. www.nytimes.com
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